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Evangelical Celebrity and the Root Problem behind ‘Big Eva’

Earlier this year Joshua Harris separated from his wife and renounced the faith. The public aftermath was the inevitable cascade of articles, blogs, and posts questioning and critiquing evangelical celebrity culture.

It’s healthy to critically evaluate evangelicalism’s embrace of pastors or other “important” Christians as celebrities (I’d commend Trueman and Anyabwile’s discussions from a few years back). Sometimes, the Christian “movements” that grab our attention have less to do with Christ than with replicating worldly trends, and it’s good for us to allow the tragedy of a “big fall” to temper our hubris with humility before both God and men.

Critiquing celebrity comes most naturally in the form of criticizing “Big Eva”: the Christian celebrities and the mysterious gatekeepers standing just behind the curtain. Undoubtedly the decision to promote the latest attention-grabber, rather than someone who has exemplified decades of steady faithfulness, has too often been made. Such decisions seem to reflect greater loyalty to the Almighty Dollar than to the believers such organizations claim to serve.

But I get nervous when Christians, in critiquing celebrity, blame “the system.” “The system” is out of reach of the ordinary believer, so blaming it is an excellent way to shift responsibility away from ourselves. We get to shake our heads, frustrated at Christian celebrity culture “out there,” and then carry on, smug in our own behavior. Those men (whether here at TGC, or elsewhere) will give an account to the Lord for their decisions. But so will you. It seems to me a particularly sinister plot of Satan to persuade us that the most serious problems in Christian culture have their origins far away from us.

Root of the Problem

The most urgent crisis we must address is the one easily overlooked: the role of worldly beliefs in our own hearts that fuel whatever man-centered Evangelical Industrial Complex exists.

Fundamentally, the negative aspects of a Christian celebrity culture are an outgrowth of our desire to have a leader we can see. We want a king like the nations have to lead us into battle. We want the Christian movie star, musician, or pro athlete to appeal to our non-Christian neighbor and persuade them that Christianity is reasonable. We want these kinds of figures because we love Christ (good!), but also, perhaps, because we’re unsure whether the regular, ordinary Christian can accomplish the mission.

We are the ones who make evangelical celebrities too big to fail. At least, until they break our hearts.

We must put to death the lie that we need nationally known Christians in order for the kingdom of God to advance.

After all, if you follow the money behind celebrity culture, where does it come from? From regular, ordinary Christians all too ready to open their wallets for the Next Big Name. It’s profitable to build a Christian celebrity platform because there’s a ready and willing market.

We must put to death the lie that we need nationally known Christians in order for the kingdom of God to advance.

Measuring Influence

None of this is to renounce the value of imitating mature Christians as they imitate Christ. Nor is it to say it’s wrong to look up to the so-called Christian famous (which is to say, not actually famous).

But it is to say we must place celebrity power in its proper place. Influence accomplished through the faux-intimacy of celebrity isn’t lasting anyway. We should celebrate instead the intimate influences that fill up most of life. The effect of supportive presence amid sorrow, the timely word spoken in season, the pointed rebuke from a loving friend—a distant celebrity can only cheaply imitate such moments.

True, the influence of a mentor or friend’s faithful presence over days and months and years is harder to note and quantify than that one sermon you heard by that Christian Big Name. I remember a sermon John Piper preached when he came to my seminary on 2 Timothy 4:9–22). I can tell you how it influenced and shaped me (it taught me to value the greetings at the end of Paul’s letters as Scripture, not just end-material).

Meanwhile, that same year I listened to probably 40 to 45 sermons from the senior pastor of my local church. If I took some time, I could probably work out which books I heard preached at church that year. But of those two men, who do you think has actually had a more enduring influence on my reading of Scripture and my own preaching? The two influences aren’t in competition; they complement each other. But one is more basic and essential.

The more we neglect these more local and cumulative influences—and instead pour our hopes of Christian impact into the idea of Christian celebrity—there is another dark and tragic cost. We downplay the value of the faithful saint who attends our church every week and prays for every request she ever hears. We communicate to regular Christians that they’re less valuable to God than those whose names are widely known.

Where’s Your Hope?

The commercialization of Christian publications, conference circuits, and social media (not-so-affectionately known as “Big Eva”)—that sparks organizational decisions driven more by what sells than what is good for Christians—is certainly problematic. But celebrity is manufactured because of misplaced affection and worldly calculus in our hearts. As long as believers buy into the world’s lie that only what looks important counts, we will set ourselves up, yet again, for the disappointment of a failed evangelical celebrity. We will again tempt the young and gifted with the world, rather than encourage them toward enduring faithfulness. We will again discount the old and wise among us as irrelevant, promoting flashy hubris over humble stability. We will again teach young Christians to place their hopes in a man, rather than in the Lord and his appointed, ordinary means of grace.

Whom do you most love and honor with your lips? Where is your spiritual energy most invested? Where have you, in practice, placed your hope and confidence for the spread of the gospel and the triumph of the kingdom?


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